Laptops for all, exams, digital learning? Where next for edtech post-pandemic?

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Setting aside government threats over remote education and its slow response over laptops, politicians must seize the ‘accidental opportunity’ to put technology at heart of education, says Geoff Barton

It has long been something of a national sport to tell schools what they should or shouldn’t be doing. And over the course of the coronavirus pandemic it is a sport that has become more popular than ever. Particularly when it comes to remote learning.

We should perhaps view this level of interest in a positive way. It shows that people care deeply about education. Disinterest would be much worse.

However, it does not feel all that positive to be on the receiving end of poorly informed criticism aired by certain sections of the commentariat, and it proves especially galling when those flames are fanned by none other than the secretary of state for education.

Gavin Williamson’s recent statement in the House of Commons encouraging parents to complain to Ofsted about any deficiencies in remote education follows his earlier decision to use emergency powers to make its provision a legal duty.

Red meat

The subtext is that the government is sorting out supposedly recalcitrant schools, which, of course, suggests they are doing something wrong in the first place. It might be red meat for backbenchers and media pundits who have a certain view, but it is hardly helpful for relations between the government and the profession.

The crumb of comfort is that Mr Williamson’s statement appears to have actually resulted in thousands of parents contacting Ofsted directly – not to bury but to praise their schools.

Leaving all that aside, there is much that could be said about the arguments which have raged over remote education. And it is perhaps worth mentioning two specific points here.

First, the criticism which is levelled at schools is based largely on the idea that remote education did not go well in the first lockdown period. This needs context. Schools were asked to provide remote learning for millions of pupils, without notice and without experience of ever having done this before.


Many pupils did not have laptops or internet connectivity – problems which the government has been very slow to remedy – and many families clearly struggled with the significant challenge of supporting children suddenly at home with varying levels of engagement.

In these difficult circumstances, a study in June last year by the UCL Institute of Education found that around one in five pupils had carried out no schoolwork at home, or less than an hour a day. Researchers estimated that this equated to approximately 2.3 million children across the UK.

The study was actually based on a survey of just over 4,500 households in the last two weeks of April. So, it was a toe in the water early in the crisis rather than a definitive verdict. Nevertheless, it was seized upon in some quarters and has been trotted out at regular intervals ever since, with all nuance removed, as a criticism of schools.

Live lessons

Second, and running in tandem alongside this, has been the notion that live lessons are some sort of gold standard for remote education, and that schools should be providing an endless stream of them.

It is hard to know exactly why this idea has taken root, and it obviously runs into a practical problem if children have no laptop or stable internet connection. But that aside, experience suggests that what works best is a mix of approaches – pre-recorded lessons and resources, tasks and assignments, and live lessons – tailored to the context of the school.

Helpfully, Ofsted has published a short guide about what is working well in remote education (2021), which seeks to dispel some of the myths that have arisen, including the idea that the best way to deliver remote education is always through live lessons.

So, common sense prevails, although whether it cuts through the noise that surrounds this vexed issue is another matter.

Last haul

In any event, we will all hope that this is the last haul for remote education before the vaccination programme brings the pandemic to an end, although exactly when that might be is uncertain. When we eventually reach those sunny uplands, however, there is the question of what lessons have been learned from this bruising experience.

What is immediately clear is how starkly the crisis exposed the lack of a coherent national strategy on education technology. Nobody could possibly have expected a global pandemic to strike of course, but much more could and should have been done by the government prior to the crisis to utilise the huge potential of digital technologies to transform education.

In an online age, it would surely be a good idea for every child to have a laptop or tablet for school work in any case. Their futures lie in their familiarity and confidence with this technology, not with pen and paper. Such forward-thinking policy would have had the happy by-product of supporting children through the crisis that then unfolded.

Ironically, of course, we are now in a much better position on education technology than we were 12 months ago. Hundreds of thousands of laptops and devices have been rolled out, online resources have been developed, and schools are accustomed to using an array of digital platforms.

We must now build on this accidental opportunity, integrating digital resources and technology throughout the curriculum and learning, and dare I say it, into our exams system. And this needs to be coordinated centrally by government, not left to evolve in a piecemeal manner.

This has the potential to be truly transformative. Schools will, I am sure, be hugely welcoming of any such initiative. All it needs is the political will to make it happen.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Read his previous articles for SecEd, via

Further information & resources

Ofsted: Guidance: What’s working well in remote education, January 2021:


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